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Can that downhill slide be avoided?

By Richard L. Strout / May 29, 1981



Washington

Have we reached the point where the president starts his inevitable slide downhill? I don't mean President Reagan in particular; I mean any American president? Political scientists study the phenomenon, and what some call "the cycle of declining influence" is associated with the separation of powers. Students of America don't agree on it: it doesn't always happen. The United States is the only big country that separates the executive from the legislative power. Nowhere else can the legislature vote a higher budget than the executive proposes; if Parliament did that in Ottawa, or Amsterdam, or Canberra, the government would fall. Americans feel they have the best system of government if the world and it has worked pretty well on the whole. Now we have another test under Mr. Reagan.

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The argument of those who criticize the system is that the US president "does not have the power to legislate and execute his program," in the words of former Carter counsel Lloyd Cutler, published in Foreign Affairs. He argues that the voters elect a new president thinking that he will "clear up the mess in Washington," and then he doesn't do it. In the last election 75 million voters didn't vote; were they disillusioned? An essay by Lance Morrow in Time magazine discussed the matter. He calls the doctrine of separation of powers partly to blame "for the present imbroglio, a presidency unable to get any program through Congress unmauled, and a Congress unable to get its wishes carried out by an entrenched bureaucracy.'

Now come several scholars writing in "Presidential Studies Quarterly" to the same effect, and we can compare what they say as we watch the events in Washington. We are at about the point in the usual cycle, the argument runs, for a drop in public approval of the president -- any president. Mr. Reagan has enjoyed his honeymoon. Now comes a dip. Why? In theory because of the juxtaposition of mass expectations with presidential reality: the public, and particularly the unsophisticated public, expects more than he can achieve with Congress and the bureaucracy. The public has been told that the new president will solve their problems. Why doesn't he do it?

An aide of President Ford is quoted: "Each decision is bound to hurt somebody: each appointment is going to cut into support. There's really no way that the president can win."

Fortunately, argues Paul C.Light, University of Virginia, there's another cycle, "the cycle of increasing effectiveness." This simply means that an inexperienced president learns how to operate better as he goes along. There was improvement in Jimmy Carter's performance after the first year, and Ronald Reagan has certainly learned a lot from his 96 to 0 rebuff in the Senate over the hint that he would cut social security payments to the elderly.

Some president don't lose their influence: General Eisenhower didn't (He didn't try many bold experiments, anyway.) And Franklin Roosevelt didn't. He extended his prestige and in 1934 the Democratic Party actually increased its majority in the House at midterm, a feat that no party under a new president has repeated in 47 years since (House Republicans take note of that in the 1982 election!)

And President Reagan? If he follows the experience of the previous five presidents he is now likely to lose some momentum -- at least on the domestic front. It isn't apt to reach the point, fortunately, that Lloyd Cutler gloomily described. "The separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches, whatever its merits in 1973, has become a structure that almost guarantees stalemate today."